Illinois Appellate Court Opens Waiting Passenger’s Lawsuit Against Estate of Teen Killed by Amtrak Train

A judge’s job is to enforce the letter of the law. However, every so often a judge is presented with a case that whose law is not laid out in prior statute or case law. Take for instance the personal injury case of Gayane Zokhrabov v. Jeung-Hee Park, etc., 2011 IL App. (1st) 102672. The unique case facts meant that there was no clear legal precedent, leaving it up to the Illinois Appellate Court to establish a new precedent.

Zokhrabov arose out of an Illinois train accident in which Hiroyuko Joho was killed after being struck by a train. The plaintiff in the personal injury lawsuit, Gayane Zokhrabov, was standing on the train platform when Joho was hit by the fast-moving train. Zokhrabov was injured after being struck down by one of Joho’s body parts; she then sued Joho’s estate for her fractured wrist, legs, and shoulder.

The theory of liability in the Illinois personal injury lawsuit was that Joho’s negligence caused Zokhrabov’s injuries and that his estate should be liable for those injuries. Because the fact pattern in Zokhrabov’s was unique and unprecedented, the Cook County judge handling the case relied on a similar Illinois lawsuit to make his ruling – Cunis v. Brennan, 56 Ill.2d 372, 308 N.E.2d 617 (1974).

Cunis involved a two-car accident in which one of the passengers was thrown from his vehicle into a public parkway. His leg became impaled on an abandoned municipal drain pipe and eventually needed to be amputated. The man sued the municipality for their negligence in causing his leg amputation. However, the court in Cunis ruled that the case facts were “tragically bizarre” and the municipality did not owe the passenger a duty. Similarly, the judge in Zokhrabov decided that the present case facts were also tragically bizarre and that Joho and his estate did not owe the plaintiff a duty. The judge therefore granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the case on the grounds that the decedent did not have a duty to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff appealed the decision to the Illinois Appellate Court, which concluded that the trial judge’s application of Cunis was incorrect and found that the facts in Cunis had little similarity to those in Zokhrabov. While the court agreed that the outcome in Cunis was bizarre and unpredictable, it found that the outcome in Zokhrabov, while bizarre, was predictable. According to the appellate court:

the potential outcome of Joho’s conduct . . . appears to be relatively limited, since the path of the train was fixed, the pedestrian crosswalk was marked, the train ran within the established speed limit, its speed, weight, and force grossly exceeded any pedestrian’s, and commuters were congregating to the side of the train tracks for the next scheduled public departure.

In order to determine how the law interpreted Zokhrabov’s case facts, the appellate court had to rely on several different prior cases. The first of these was Park v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter R.R. Corp., 2011 IL.App. (1st) 101283, in which the court had denied a lawsuit filed against the Canadian Public Railway after a commuter was killed at a train crossing. The relevant aspect of Park dealt with its defining the act of stepping in front of a moving train as an “open and obvious” danger which pedestrians should take care to avoid.

The court also considered the Illinois statute (625 ILCS 5/11-1011(c)) which states that:

No pedestrian shall enter, remain upon or traverse over a railroad grade crossing or pedestrian walkway crossing a railroad track when an audible bell or clearly visible electric or mechanical signal device is operational giving warning of the presence, approach, passage, or departure of a railroad train [or railroad track equipment].”(West 2006).

And while Feldscher v. E&B, Inc., 95 Ill. 2d 360, 370, 447 N.E.2d 1331, 1336 (1983) established that breaching a statute enacted to protect human life indicates that the person acted with “less than reasonable care,” the court still needed to establish that Joho owed Zokhrabov a duty of care.

Under the Restatement (Third) of Torts § 6, cmt. b (2010), a person owes others a duty of care to avoid causing them physical harm and must act as a reasonable person would under the circumstances. Again, the court already determined that Joho did not act reasonably; they now were left to determine whether he owed Zokhrabov and her fellow commuters a duty to avoid causing them harm. To do so, the court needs to determine the reasonable foreseeability that Joho’s actions would cause an Zokhrabov’s injuries.

According to Colonial Inn Motor Lodge, Inc. v. Gay, 288 Ill. App. 3d 32, 40, 680 N.E.2d 407, 413 (1997), one can determine whether a duty exists by examining “the potential for injury rather than the specifics of the harm that did occur.” Under this analysis, a foreseeable injury, even when through bizarre and unforeseen means, is actionable. The appellate court held

that it was reasonably foreseeable that the onrushing Amtrak train would strike, kill, and fling [Joho’s] body down the tracks and onto the passenger platform where Zokhrabov was waiting for the next scheduled Metra departure…[and found] that the reasonable likelihood of injury occurring was great given the relative force of the approaching Amtrak train, that the magnitude of the burden imposed by guarding against the harm was insignificant, since Joho needed only to pause, look down the tracks, and then time his crossing accordingly, and that the consequences of placing the burden on Joho would have been minimal.

As a result, the court overturned the trial judge’s ruling and remanded the case back to the trial court. However, in its opinion, the appellate court noted that it had ruled only as to whether the decedent owed Zokhrabov a duty of care. It had not expressed any opinion as to the other components of the plaintiff’s claim, including proximate cause, breach, and damages, and would allow the Cook County jury to decide those elements.

Kreisman Law Offices has been representing individuals and families in Illinois train accidents lawsuits for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Joliet, Chicago’s Albany Park, Morton Grove, Niles, Winnetka, Lombard, and Zion.

Similar blog posts:

Train Engineer Receives Jury Verdict for Injury to Shoulder While Applying Train Brake – Hatchett v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp.

Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Railroad Owed Duty to Child Injured Climbing onto Train – Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt R. Co.

Metra Train Crossing Accident Verdict of $700,000 Upheld By Illinois Appellate Court – McDonald v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp.